The humanities play a central role in the reflection on the human and in the discourse on Human Rights. The aim of this speech is to present a reflection on the human as the basis of the discourse of Human Rights taking as references some notes by the US philosopher Judith Butler.
There is no space here to discuss the place of the human in her work, nonetheless a few brief reflections that she delivered at the close of a conference held in 2006 will suffice. In it, she explores the possibility of a discourse on the human in Human Rights that exploits the tension between what is legally established as human and what appears from there as monstrous, less than human or non-human. It aims to show the compatibility of a critique of the discourse of Human Rights based on legal law with the critical use of Human Rights discourse.
The point of departure is that Human Rights depends on humanities as producers of discourse for its renewal, and of humanities that are, in fact, involved in it, precisely through the discussion of the human. In particular, Butler develops her position in discussion with Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. She argues for a culturally situated universal, as opposed to what she understands as an a priori distinction of the universal and the particular she attributes to Laclau. This universal in culture is such insofar as it depends on cultural norms for its articulation. However this universal is altered in the course of the repetition of cultural practices that sustain it, giving rise to divergences and different versions of it that contest the generalised meaning. As the case may be, different political movements articulate different visions of the norms for organising the commons required to ensure, for example, a livable life, which compete for hegemony over what is a livable life. The aim is, for Butler, to generate ever more encompassing universals out of the contestation between them.
The human is another universal that is contested by various human rights discourses, which conceive of the distribution of rights in different ways. In particular, while one human rights discourse may consider a given set of rights as belonging to all human persons, another version may consider that such a set marks precisely the limit that calls its universality into question. Thus, it would also be necessary to claim the human rights of women, lesbians and gays or migrants for such groups to be effectively included in the universal of human rights or to be part of the human as a subject position guaranteed by legal law.
This difference between Human Rights and the Human Rights of, in particular, is the focus of this speech. At stake is how the human is conceived as a foundation and what relation it has, in the particular case of human rights discourse, to the structure and conditions of ethical and political demand.
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